Talking About Death

If your loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, talking about death and his or her final wishes is one of the most difficult tasks you will face as a caregiver.

Death is inevitable. It is also a subject that is almost universally avoided when we communicate with our loved ones. Talking about a loved one’s impending death is frightening and difficult, which leads many to put it off until later. Unfortunately, we cannot always predict what “later” will be. Although discussing death can initially be threatening, you undoubtedly want to understand your loved one’s final wishes, so you can carry them out as fully as possible. But how do you approach the subject? Here are some possible suggestions:

  • Do not push your loved one to talk about death. He or she will do so when ready.
  • Do not let your feelings be hurt if your loved one chooses to discuss death with someone other than yourself. If this is the case, and you would like to discuss death with your loved one, let him/ her know that you are comfortable discussing the topic when he/ she is ready to talk to you.
  • Always use language about death that everyone is comfortable using. Try not to avoid using the word, but feel free to use metaphors or softer words (e.g., passed away) in place of the word “death.”
  • Do not rush the conversation. Make time for your loved one and realize that you might have to do so on a flexible schedule—predicting when someone will feel comfortable discussing death is often difficult.
  • Do not discredit any emotions about death that you or your loved one are feeling. Be sure to acknowledge that these may be influencing what you say or how you behave. This will help your loved one to understand.
  • If a loved one brings the topic up and it scares you, do not shut the individual down by saying something like “don’t say that.” Instead, even if you aren’t ready to talk about it, let your loved one discuss his/ her feelings. Keep the conversation going by saying things like “really?” or by rephrasing what he or she has already said.
  • If you are ready to discuss death, talk naturally about what things will be like when the individual is no longer present. Ask if there are any special wishes that your loved one has with respect to future events that they will miss (e.g., Dad is there someone who you would like to designate as the “turkey cutter” next Thanksgiving?)
  • Finally, talk about your loved one’s current condition and his/ her hopes or fears for the future. If there is a ways to gain information that would lessen your loved one’s fears, you should do so (e.g., asking your loved one’s doctor about what options are available if the pain gets worse).

Always remember, some days will be harder than others. If you have previously discussed death with your loved one, but are uncomfortable doing so at a later date, do not feel that you are failing. This works the other way around as well. If your loved one has days when he or she has trouble talking about death, do not get upset. Just remember that while it is difficult to talk about, discussing death can ultimately alleviate fears and foster stronger emotional bonds between you and your loved one.

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